THE CARE AND FEEDING OF BETA-READERS
by J.P. Sloan
Greetings, author. Yes, if you are an author, and if you’re shopping for a beta-reader, then it’s fairly clear that you have a completed, semi-polished manuscript in your eager little hands. This is GREAT news, because this means you are no longer “aspiring.” You’re now a full-fledged author with a possible best seller burning up your Documents folder, or manila folder, or Dropbox… whatever.
You feel you need a beta-reader, now. Why do you feel this way? Most likely because:
- a) You’ve done this before, and you know how invaluable other people’s eyeballs are,
- b) You’ve never done this before, but you’ve networked and have heard how invaluable other people’s eyeballs are, or
- c) You’re some kind of wizard and should probably be chucking fireballs at unicorns or something.
Well, before you start hounding Aunt Ethyl or “Clive in Shipping” to read your novel, let’s pump the brakes a second and take a look at what, in fact, a beta-reader is.
The Earthbound Beta-reader is an individual who reads your manuscript prior to submittal, often as an ongoing phase of the revision process, in order to offer opinions on plot, characters, and readability. A beta-reader isn’t (necessarily) a publishing professional. A beta-reader isn’t (ideally) a close friend or relative. A quality beta-reader should possess the following virtues:
1) Objectivity. For a beta-reader to be of the most use to the author, that reader should not only be able to read the work with objectivity, but also feel free to fully express any and all flaws that reader may discover. This usually means a degree or two of detachment from the author. Family members generally make the worst beta-readers. Positive bias for the author tends to lower expectations of quality. Also, Aunt Ethyl may not have a popular sense of what is or isn’t quality writing. A beta-reader should be a “trusted stranger,” or even a “colleague,” ideally one who won’t fear some manner of retribution from you, the savage author, upon whose toes they have been invited to samba.
2) Competence. Not just anyone can hack it as a quality beta-reader. To truly be of use, a beta-reader should have some familiarity with plot structure, character development, and conflict. An excellent beta-reader will have a keen eye for plot holes and continuity issues. The highest order of beta-reader might even possess specific skills or historical knowledge that can be employed toward fact-checking. A simple shrug and “it was cool, I guess” isn’t what you want from a beta-reader. You’ll want someone who knows what worked, what didn’t… and WHY.
3) Professionalism. Perhaps that’s too strong a word. After all, a beta-reader isn’t (necessarily) an industry pro. Industry pros tend to charge for substantive editing, and they deserve every penny. Perhaps a better term should be “respectful regard.” A quality beta-reader won’t let your manuscript linger like a cave-aged gruyere. Once approached, and if they accept the task, a beta-reader will either let you know when they’ll start reading, ask you what your timeframe looks like, or will otherwise start giving the novel a good thrashing at their earliest convenience. Quality beta-readers will also stay in touch, particularly toward the outside of the projected time-frame. Should some unexpected delay pop up, a beta-reader will give the author a heads-up, and would certainly respond to nudges… even if it’s a polite “I’ll be another week, my grandmother was savaged by weasels yesterday.” And, of course, their feedback will be honest but not brutal. Hurtful digs, dismissive disregard, and condescending corrections aren’t what you want, nor are they helpful. Remember, though, that honest feedback may seem hurtful to you in the moment. Don’t confuse constructive criticism with cruel criticism.
So, bearing those criteria in mind, you find yourself somewhat lost. How the hell are you going to cultivate such quality readers? If you’re an introvert by nature, and tend not to reach out and network with other writers, then your task becomes somewhat more daunting. After all, authors such as yourself tend to possess many of the qualities you’d most value in a beta-reader. You just have to meet a few… preferably who read in your target genre and age category. Where do you find like-minded authors? Twitter is a quick, down-and-dirty means to locate authors in your area of interest, the downside being they are effective strangers who may have a bit too much detachment. Try a local writer’s group. Very often these are gateways toward local seminars to help hone your craft, find a space in a critique group, and get to know fellow word-slingers in general.
Speaking of critique groups, these are very often the One Stop Shop for beta-readers. A typical critique group won’t have the time to group-dissect everyone’s full length novel. Find one or two you trust, and who have time, and approach them. They know who you are, what you’re trying to do, and may have already hashed out excerpts from your manuscript already.
Though detachment is vital, this doesn’t mean you can’t farm beta-readers from your circle of friends and family. The trick is to find those special people who are avid readers, have no problem calling you out on your hair-brained plot holes, and who recognize that your best interests don’t necessarily involve preening your ego. Do you have a bookish cousin? Shoot her an email. Does one of the members of your polyamorous tetrad always seem to have the latest Patterson book on his nightstand with notes in the margins? Bingo.
So, let’s assume you’ve found two or three quality beta-readers. What do you do now?
1) Ask them if they’re willing to read over your manuscript,
2) Ask them if they have the time or ability to turn it around in a reasonable timeframe (usually 2-4 weeks depending on the length of the manuscript and their reading speed),
3) Identify what specifically you might want them to look for… “Does the plot make sense?” “How’s the pacing; does it ever drag?” “How did you feel about the main character/villain/anthropomorphic toad?” Give your beta-readers some direction, and for best results encourage them not to linger on line-edits, proofreading, grammar, syntax, etc.
On that note… a beta-reader is not (necessarily) an editor. A line-edit takes much longer to hammer out, and requires a very particular skill set best left to professionals. There are several editors for hire, and they’re easy to find via personal referral or via a savvy Google search.
Next… the wait. Don’t bug your beta-reader. They won’t require daily reminders that you’re pulling your hair out. This includes passive-aggressive subtweets about how you’re “so excited to think Hammy-Sammy is reading my WIP! I hope PLOT TWIST ALPHA won’t freak him out too much! OMG J/K” *single gunshot*
Say you’ve agreed to a four-week timeframe, but week five rolls around and you haven’t heard back yet? Send out a polite nudge. You’ll probably get a response, and it’ll probably involve life getting in the way. And that’s okay because LIFE HAPPENS. Be gracious. They’re not getting paid for this, after all (assuming you didn’t hire a service). However, if you don’t receive any responses, like, at all… it may be time to cut bait and try again. First time beta-readers are like a box of chocolates…
Now, they’ve responded! Holy mackerel! They read your novel! Once you’re done dancing a jig, shaving your head, and/or projectile vomiting from anxiety, immediately thank them and let them know that you’ll review their notes… later. Resist the urge to read immediately and respond to their input. Why? Because this will be a very dicey time for you, dear author. You just had someone run a louse comb over your darlings. If this is a second, third, or even fourth draft… they’re going to find something. It could be big. It could mean significant re-writes. It could be minute, hair-splitting, or even utterly contrary to your entire narrative.
Emotions won’t help your beta-reader relationships. So, be super-happy they took all that time to read your book. Thank them quickly and profusely. But don’t read their notes until you have time to dissect them as expertly as they’ve dissected your book. You will have emotional responses. Someone will take that character you love completely the wrong way. Someone will completely miss the point of your plot twist. Someone may even call you out for writing flat… even offensive characters. It’s happened to me. It’s no fun at all to hear the truth when the truth is ugly.
But you need the truth. That’s the whole point. Take the hits. Roll with them. Throw your pencil across the room (avoid the cat if you can) and shout and swear in private. Don’t defend yourself. They’re giving you their opinion, not a decree. They’re not evaluating you as a person. They’re evaluating your manuscript.
That said, not all feedback is equal. Sometimes you’ll get a “wow, this was great!” And that’ll be it. Perhaps it feels gratifying, but it may not be entirely helpful. Such a beta-reader isn’t the type you want to return to. Sometimes you’ll receive an exhaustive, detailed list of inaccuracies based entirely on one passage your beta-reader misread. It’s happened.
Now, should a beta-reader ask you direct questions about your manuscript, by all means answer. Communicate. This back-and-forth often helps you work out your thinking as well as identifying what didn’t come through on paper. Sure, you may have dropped that one hint on page six for the twist on page two-hundred… but if the beta-reader missed it and was confused, the odds are many more readers will do the same. It’s up to you to decide what feedback you’ll find is worth revisiting, and what feedback you will chose to disregard. It’s your novel… not theirs. A quality of successful authors is the ability to know the difference, and that really only comes with time and practice. That, or superserum and a generous dose of cosmic radiation.
So, you’ve weeded through your beta-notes, zeroed in on what worked and what didn’t, and it’s time to dive back into another revision pass. Awesome! This is what writing is all about! Take joy in the revision process. I know, that’s like asking a toddler to take joy in booster shots, but it truly is the “craft” of writing. In time, you’ll come to appreciate watching the characters evolve under revision passes. You’ll admire the changing topography of your plot outline. You’ll catalog subplots that you’ve cut clear of your manuscript, and you’ll keep them like tiny seed packets for future books.
Once you’ve finished polishing over your manuscript, guess what? It’s time to make another important decision. Is it ready for submittal? Do you feel you’ve re-written so much that you’ll want another beta-pass? Alas, there’s no formula for this. It’s your judgment call. Either way, I find it’s important to run this process at least once, even if you already have an agent, editor, or a multi-book deal.
You never want to put a rough-hewn manuscript into a pro’s hands. Ever. That’s just not a good career move.
And on that note, I tend not to send the same book to the same beta-reader twice. That’s just too much work! I’m not entirely sure if any of my beta-readers ever read the finished product (after my publisher’s editing/proofing passes). I do know that they’re usually the first to buy the books when they release, and that, right there, is part of the rewarding relationship you may develop with your betas.
So, in a nutshell…
Choose your beta-readers wisely.
Be mutually respectful.
Don’t let emotions govern the interaction.
And you’re likely to earn a friend or two out of the deal!
J.P. Sloan is a speculative fiction author … primarily of urban fantasy, horror and several shades between. His writing explores the strangeness in that which is familiar, at times stretching the limits of the human experience, or only hinting at the monsters lurking under your bed.
A Louisiana native, Sloan relocated to the vineyards and cow pastures of Central Maryland after Hurricane Katrina, where he lives with his wife and son. During the day he commutes to the city of Baltimore, a setting which inspires much of his writing.
In his spare time, Sloan enjoys wine-making and homebrewing, and is a certified beer judge.